Brindisi — the best harbor in the world?

Via_Appia_in_BrindisiThe ancient port of Brindisi can be spotted on the map instantly—right on the Adriatic side of Italy’s “heel.” The Appian Way, the most celebrated road in all of Italy, connected Brindisi (Brundisium) with Rome since the days of the Republic until the fall of the Western Empire. One should not assume, however, that today this city can attract tourists by its architectural marvels. Remnants of the golden age of Rome are scarce here. Even of the two terminal columns that were once placed at the end of Via Appia only one stands today (the other one collapsed in the 16th century and was moved to the nearby town of Lecce). It appears that the most noteworthy historic monument in Brindisi is not man-made: the city boasts a convenient harbor to which it owes much of its significance. From here, the Balkan peninsula is less than a hundred miles away, and throughout its entire history Brindisi served as the primary point of contacts between Italy and Greece, as well as the lands beyond the Greek isles. These contacts took on different forms. During early historic times the area was colonized by Greek settlers who displaced indigenous local tribes: the Messapians, the Dauni and the Peucetii. In the 3rd century B.C.E., the rapidly growing Roman Republic subjugated this area. Brundisium became the gateway to the Greek culture, so cherished by the Roman aristocracy. The advent of Christianity brought forth a new type of traveler, a religious pilgrim completely  uninterested in Hellenistic traditions, but devoted to visiting holy shrines in Palestine. Brindisi turned out to be the most convenient port in Western Europe for reaching those destinations. This trend continued throughout the Middle Ages, despite the breakdown of the Mediterranean transportation network after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Even prolonged periods of Muslim domination in the Levant failed to put an end to religious pilgrimages. When western rulers, inspired by Pope Urban II, resorted to military action in order to reclaim Palestine for Christians, this port became a preferred place of departure for crusading armies and ships with supplies. The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 caused an influx of well educated Greeks fleeing their homeland. They brought with them a deep appreciation of classical antiquities, as well as manuscripts previously unavailable in the West, thus fueling the European Renaissance. Brindisi was a natural funnel for people, resources and ideas during these developments.
Apart from proximity to the Balkan coast, the city’s harbor has always had a reputation of being the safest and most accommodating in Italy. The famous Greek geographer Strabo favorably compared it to the harbor in Tarentum which had some shallow places and was less protected from the waves. The advantages of the harbor in Brindisi are primarily due to its unique shape: an oblong outer cove connects to the double-armed inner inlet through a narrow straight. To the ancient Messapians, as Strabo reports, this shape resembled the head of an antlered animal, and they named this place Brentesium which literally meant “the head of a stag” (Geography 6.3.6). From the nautical point of view, Brindisi is a harbor within a harbor. During the winter months, sailors especially appreciated these calm waters, completely shielded from surges and rough waves.

See also:
Favorite Italian dishes, by region
Early color photographs of Italy

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